The Secrets of Successful Business Part One: Controlling Time
(This article is based on one written for writers, as part of the How to Write Stories That Work - and Get Them Published! e-course.)
So you want to be an entrepreneur?
Or someone who owns and runs a successful business?
‘Entrepreneur’ could be defined as a ‘business creator’.
Every successful entrepreneur or businessperson begins with their existing position, and that position is one of seven potential starting points:
1. You are trapped in a job from which you would like to escape, with a vague notion of what you would like to do but no clear idea of how to get away or how to put together any kind of dream. At this point, ‘entrepreneurship’ or ‘having your own business’ are ideas which are so overloaded with impossibilities and so remote that you try not to think about them in case you go mad.
2. One small step up from the above and you have realised where you are and how that is different from where you want to be - and you are going mad with frustration and despair. You are in effect trapped in orbit around a set of circumstances that you hate and would like to destroy, but which you are probably dependent upon for a salary and stability. In this position, you would try almost anything to get away.
3. Position 3 is when you are occasionally given a breath of air - you come up for that breath, take some time out to work on your own business or some kind of escape plan, but are too swiftly drawn back under and have to return to work, losing sight of any goal you might have tried to put together. It’s better than Position 2, in which you have no hope of escape, but not much.
4. In Position 4, you now have the chance to do something for real. Here, though still enthralled to a set of circumstances you dislike, you have more time and more opportunity to build something of your own. This gives you a foothold on an escape ladder.
5. Position 5 is when you are clearly emerging from the past and leaving it behind. You’ve been able to construct something that works, and that construction is slowly growing.
6. Positions 6 and 7 are where you dream of being: your business is free of debt, free of dependency upon anything you don’t wish to depend upon. Position 6 is best summed up by the word ‘freedom’; Position 7 by the word ‘wisdom’ - at this end of the spectrum, you are totally in command and able to open up any further operation you would wish, using only your own resources.
You can see that the turning point is Position 4.
So (I hear you ask) how do you get from Positions 1, 2 and 3 to something more ideal? How do you get to Position 4?
Your biggest enemy at first glance in those early Positions is Time. Your current job and other commitments like family and debts mean that you apparently have no time to do anything else, perhaps even to think about anything else. Here you are drowning in circumstances, and probably seeking distraction and diversion from the pain or discomfort of that whenever a moment makes itself available.
What’s the secret?
It’s something that at first you will deny and defy: you actually do have enough time to start some momentum going. It’s just that you’re blind to it in the lower Positions, because you are overwhelmed by the rest of what is happening around you. Sitting in a traffic jam, or on a long train commute, or waiting for a bus, you see nothing but a quieter moment in a long series of noisy moments. In fact, by actual test, almost everyone in those Positions is actively wasting about 20% of their time.
You can break it down mechanically - 168 hours in a week, about 100 of those ‘awake’, perhaps 20 hours spent eating, 20 on other body-driven activities (bathing, etc), and at least 50 or maybe 60 on whatever it is you do for work, including commuting time. That doesn’t leave a lot of ‘spare time’. But buried within that seemingly full week are gaps, like holes within a Swiss cheese: there are times spent in a car or on a train or waiting for a bus, which right now you might be using to try to unwind. There are times ‘between things’ - in elevators, waiting for meetings, walking to the next task, and so on - which add up to at least 20% of your total time.
Think of it along the lines of the famous ’80/20’ formula, about which you can read elsewhere: 80% of anything is usually balanced by 20% of something else - 80% of customers might not buy, but 20% will, and so on. 80% of your time is swallowed up by work that you dislike; 20% of your time is available for other activities but is currently being wasted by you.
How do you take advantage of that time rather than waste it?
Here are five steps to get you started:
1. Value Time more highly.
I said above that Time was your biggest enemy, but it’s not your only one. Another thing you have to tackle is how you value things. At the end of the day, the central reason why you’re not running your own business right now is that you don’t place enough importance on it. You might well believe that you would give up your day job in a nano-second to run your own show, the truth is that you haven’t yet placed enough importance upon it to actually do something about it.
It might seem impossible to get started right now, but when you look at things honestly that’s because you have ranked other things in such a way that forward progress is obstructed: your job is obviously valuable as a source of income; your romantic relationship(s) and your family (including your parents); your current lifestyle (sleeping patterns, basic routines, hobbies, how you spend leisure time and so forth); your other commitments (religious, educational, sporting etc) and so forth. Unless this ranking changes, you simply won’t get anywhere.
Valuing your own ideas and your own business more highly makes you shift things around and make things happen. Not giving them the importance that they need means that things will in all likelihood stay as they are.
Let’s assume that you have managed to carve out a higher place on your list of priorities for working on your business. What else needs to happen?
2. Timetable yourself into the planning chair.
This sounds obvious, but almost all the wannabe entrepreneurs I’ve ever spoken to have the same problem: they are expecting Life to somehow open up a window of a few weeks so that they can plan their dream business.
Life doesn’t usually respond on its own - and so the wannabes get trampled into apathy by the demands of the world around them, their families, their jobs, their lives, as above.
Here’s a series of magical steps to activate this particular piece of advice:
i) Take a look at your weekly schedule; examine your commitments; work out at least 3 hours a week, preferably contiguous but not vitally so, and block that out for planning. Nothing else - just planning your business. Don’t include ‘checking emails’ or ‘answering letters’ or even ‘making notes’. Just the actual task of planning a business.
ii) Get everyone’s agreement. Easier said than done, but unless you do, your little timetable won’t be worth the screen it’s probably written on.
iii) Ideally, pick times that are interruption-free, or at least when you are less likely to be in demand. It’s possible to construct a schedule so that you are working on your business in the early hours of the morning - or even through the night, as long as you get sleep some other time. One long evening each week, or a weekend afternoon, or something like that, and, if you stick to it, you’ll find that in a few weeks you have made significant progress - provided you also apply the rest of the advice in this section and don’t keep interrupting yourself.
Which leads to the next tip.
3. Stop interrupting yourself.
The primary enemy of someone in this Position is interruptions. So devise a schedule that keeps these to a minimum, and stop interrupting yourself. (We’ll assume that you dealt with interruptions from others by getting their agreement above.)
Self-interruptions range from ‘I’ll just check my email’ to ‘I’ll get a coffee’ to ‘There’s no way I can move forward without further research’.
Put distractions aside and get to the keyboard, or desk, or whatever you use.
4. Get an iPhone or other gadget that you carry around with you.
I mention iPhones because that’s what I use, but any such gadget will do. You need something that you will actually carry around with you, though. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does have to have the capacity for keeping notes. There are plenty of free apps for this. You don’t need anything super-duper or complex: you just need something that you can write into and save. Apple’s ‘Notes’ app is fine - you can write up to any length and then email it to yourself.
Better to have it on your phone, because you will tend to carry your phone around with you at all times, whereas you might forget to bring a device dedicated to writing with you, and that’s half the problem. The iPhone 6 has the added advantage of extra battery power so you won’t burn up your phone energy.
5. Use said device.
Every time you find yourself at a loose end, work on your business ideas. Waiting for a bus? Plan. Sat on a train? Scheme. In between meetings? Dream. Write notes, write ideas, write product lists, write insights. Write whole manuals if you get a chance. It’s possible to plan entire businesses in this way in the time that you didn’t even realise was ‘spare’. Try it. You’ll be amazed. And your morale will start to go up and up. You won’t forget those flashes of genius you had on the way home before you get to your laptop; you won’t forget that you even had a flash of genius. It will all be there in some form on your device. Apart from recording stuff, the notes on your gadget will begin to give you confidence that you can actually do this. You’ll get practice, in small doses.
They say it takes 10,000 hours to master something? Well, then, over the last eight years or so you’ve probably let 10,000 hours slip through your fingers literally by not having something to hand upon which to record your thoughts and ideas in these ‘invisible gaps’ in your life.
If you’re trapped by some kind of inertia from rising from your chair, wherever you are, then plan right there, wherever you are stuck. But watch out for the interruptions, subtle or not-so-subtle, and just get on with it.
6. Plan and dream until you drop - don’t stop, don’t auto-correct.
Now all of this advice is important and every point here is worth its weight in cyber-gold, but this is one suggestion which can make or break you as a business creator.
On those occasions when you and a laptop share enough time for you to get somewhere, don’t waste time by ‘going over’ what you wrote last time, picking out possible pitfalls, finance problems, things you’d like to ‘tweak a little’.
Just hit the keyboard and dream.
Don’t stop until your head hits the space bar with exhaustion. Set yourself high word targets per hour if that works for you. Whatever you do, don’t stop - don’t even pause - for any editing or ‘re- drafting’ or even basic corrections until you reach 200 pages of plans.
For several reasons:
i) firstly, and probably most importantly, getting together 200 pages of planning for a new enterprise is a tremendous morale-booster. You know that it’s far from perfect, you know it will take major work, but there it is: 200 pages outlining your very own business.
ii) planning flat-out like this will teach you a few things about yourself as a business creator. When you read it over, you’ll see patterns, strengths and weaknesses, places where you falter and places where you demonstrate real skill. It’s a training programme for entrepreneurs, getting your business muscles fitter for the real thing.
iii) you avoid the counter-productive ‘pottering around’ that happens if you do it any other way: write a page, stop and think, change some things, correct spelling, wonder if you could have done better, and so forth. This tortuous pattern has produced one or two successful businesses, but at the cost of so many more that could have been developed in the same time with less bother.
Apply all of the above and before long, you’ll be a business owner. Then you’ll have to tackle the next obstacle.
But you will have developed the momentum to do so.
Coming soon: ‘Customer Templates’ - What They Are and How To Make Them